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SEPTA warns state GOP budget proposal could gut public transit

A budget proposal from state Republicans would be catastrophic for public transportation in Philadelphia and surrounding counties, SEPTA officials warned.

SEPTA rail cars mass in the Frankford Transportation Center yard.
SEPTA rail cars mass in the Frankford Transportation Center yard.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

A budget proposal from state Republicans would be catastrophic for public transportation in Philadelphia and surrounding counties, SEPTA officials warned Wednesday.

The proposal unveiled Tuesday by a group of Pennsylvania House Republicans would force SEPTA to cut service by 40 percent and raise fares by 20 percent by January, said Rich Burnfield, SEPTA's deputy general manager and treasurer.

"It would definitely impact all divisions, all routes across the five counties that we serve," he said.

The proposal came from conservative members among House Republicans and is considered a heavy lift to get out of the House. Even if it does, GOP senators have expressed reservations, and Gov. Wolf has been critical.

"Shifting money from public and multimodal transportation sets back progress in municipalities small and large across Pennsylvania," said J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for the governor.

The proposal would generate $2.4 billion, balancing the budget largely with money from 41 special funds that cover services like firefighting, environmental projects, 911 centers, and public transportation. House leadership supports the proposal and intends to schedule a vote on it next week.

Stephen Miskin, spokesman for the House Republicans, said that according to information from the treasurer's web site, the governor's office, and the House appropriations staff, the money being taken from the funds was excess cash that wasn't going to be transferred to operating budgets.

"Their goal at looking at all these funds and looking at the surpluses was not to affect any underlying programs," Miskin said.

SEPTA rejected this interpretation, saying the money is essential. Miskin did not say whether legislators would revise their proposal if some of the proposed cuts were found to harm programs, but said the onus was on the governor's office to demonstrate the need for the money.

Legislators have spent three months attempting to unravel the knot of the state budget, which was supposed to be settled by July 1. The governor has said he will be forced to freeze funding for essential services if the House does not vote by the end of next week on funding a $32 billion spending plan.

The proposed cuts that would affect transportation are $357 million from the public transit fund, of which SEPTA as the state's largest transportation agency receives 65 percent, and $120 million out of the multimodal fund. Shrinking those funds so significantly would cost SEPTA about $263 million from a $1.4 billion operating budget in fiscal year 2018. SEPTA receives about $725 million in state funding annually.

Those losses would mean reduced service across the board, including the possibility of some routes being cut entirely, or curtailed with changes like a loss of weekend service, Burnfield said. The authority also would likely have to lay off 500 workers, he said, with more job cuts likely after that.

In Allegheny County, the proposal could cost the Port Authority, which serves Pittsburgh, $70 million to $80 million, according to the Port Authority.

The House proposal prompted SEPTA to reach out to legislators in the southeastern part of the state, Democrats and Republicans alike. State Rep. Maria Donatucci, the Democrat who heads the city's delegation in Harrisburg, said the proposal was a nonstarter for Democrats.

"No, we don't want to vote for this," she said. "This is horrible."

She noted that while SEPTA would be hobbled, smaller transit authorities in the state would be devastated.

State Rep. Frank Farry (R., Bucks) was also skeptical of the proposal. Bucks County depends on SEPTA to get students to class and workers to their jobs, he said.

"If they had to reduce the number of trains, how many more cars is that going to be putting on I-95 for people commuting into the city?" Farry asked.

He also noted that as a solution to the state's budget woes, the proposal was temporary at best. Gutting the 41 funds wouldn't address the structural deficits that would need to be faced again during the next budget cycle.

Farry said he wanted more information on the proposal but was not enthusiastic based on what he knows.

"I need to do a lot more due diligence," he said. "If you dropped it on my lap without doing the due diligence, it'd probably be a 'no' vote."

Staff writer Angela Couloumbis and Ed Blazina of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contributed to this article.